A series of recent gaffes and political missteps have sent President Enrique Pena Nieto’s approval ratings plunging, dragging many Mexicans into a mood of national disgust.
Since the end of the summer, Pena Nieto has seen his image morph from an agenda-setting president leading a drive to transform the country to that of an indecisive leader, tolerant of corruption and overwhelmed by a mounting wave of protests.
The abduction, and likely murder, of 43 student teachers at the end of September remains a festering sore that’s infuriated some Mexicans and shed light on the frequent collusion between the political class and organized crime.
But it’s only one of the factors that have converged into a moment of political crisis. A scandal swirls around Pena Nieto and his wife over a mansion built for them by a favored government contractor at a time when the nation’s growth is lackluster and a tax overhaul bites into the middle class. On the political front, Pena Nieto has alienated elders in his political party, ruling with a tight core of young aides.
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“The political cost to the president has been really astonishing,” said Raymundo Riva Palacio, a columnist for El Financiero, a business newspaper.
Pena Nieto’s approval rating has fallen 19 percentage points since August, to 39 percent, according to a national survey of 1,200 Mexican adults released this week by Grupo Reforma, a media conglomerate. More significant is the plunge among “opinion leaders” in Mexican society, who gave him 78 percent backing when he came to office in late 2012. Now only 21 percent support him, the survey found.
“Discontent is very strong,” said Riva Palacio, adding that Pena Nieto’s aides have flailed for ways to right their listing ship. “They don’t even realize that they don’t understand what to do.”
The deteriorating situation has alarmed some global investment groups.
“The government, which passed groundbreaking reforms on education and energy, as well as reforms to begin breaking monopolies and to strengthen the fiscal position, has moved from dictating the national agenda to reacting to protests,” Benito Berber of Nomura Securities, an investment house, said in a note Tuesday.
Some of Pena Nieto’s biggest blunders touch on the case of the “Ayotzinapa 43,” student teachers in Guerrero state whom municipal police rounded up in the city of Iguala on the night of Sept. 26, then later turned over to criminal hit men.
Pena Nieto demonstrated little initial concern about the missing students, and the federal government delayed nearly two weeks before deploying 10,000 police and investigators to hunt for them. On Nov. 7, the attorney general said a probe had determined that the United Warriors gang had killed the students and burned their bodies in a huge pyre, bagged their ashes and tossed them into a river.
The mayor of Iguala and his wife, who initially went on the lam, were caught and charged with collusion with the criminal gang.
Amid public outrage over the student killings, Pena Nieto avoided traveling to Guerrero state, finally taking his first trip there Thursday. But his visit was limited to a zone of luxury hotels in Acapulco that was swarming with federal police.
The president has made other blunders.
He ordered the cancellation of the winning bid for a massive high-speed rail project on Nov. 6, aware that days later a muckraking journalist team would reveal that a minority Mexican partner in the Chinese-led group that won the bid had custom-built a $7 million mansion for his soap-opera-star wife, giving her soft terms unavailable to ordinary Mexicans.
The contractor, Grupo Higa, and its subsidiaries had won nearly $700 million in bids when Pena Nieto was a state governor from 2005 to 2011.
Since then, Pena Nieto’s wife, Angelica Rivera, has issued a video saying she earned enough as a television star to buy the mansion, an assertion many doubt, and the president’s chief of staff, Aurelio Nuno, said last Friday that the matter was closed.
This week, however, Transparency International, a global advocacy group, released its annual survey of corruption around the world. The index placed Mexico at No. 103 of the 175 countries listed, far lower than Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile, Latin American nations that compete with Mexico for investment.